Rugby hard man a proud dad

Last updated 12:00 20/03/2014
Frank Oliver
REST IN PEACE: Former All Black and Southland captain Frank Oliver.

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OPINION: After a decade of coaching, Frank Oliver happily reverted to civvy street.

He had a colourful rugby lingua which had to be translated into prose befitting a family newspaper.

When the news filtered through on Monday that Frank Oliver had died, the reaction of most was that it couldn't be so.

Big kauri of his ilk just don't fall, especially not a man who often said he liked the trees.

He spent much of his life in the bush cutting down trees, working along those lines with son James and family on Sunday.

When he finished with rugby about 13 years ago, essentially after he stepped in to coach the Blues when the ill Gordon Hunter had to step aside, it was probably a relief to bid adieu to it.

Oliver had probably done his bit after four years guiding the Hurricanes. It was tough going at the Blues; the guts of New Zealand's media is centred there and Auckland probably wasn't his habitat.

He didn't appreciate the forensic scrutiny and was undoubtedly relieved when he was able to cut it back to provincial Palmerston North and his forests.

Once when he was Manawatu coach we went out with his consent and photographed him in the bush with chainsaw and all the gears. But that was mainly it on that front.

A year or two ago I asked him to comment on some issue of the day, but he said he was out of it and those days were gone.

He could coach all right, or he wouldn't have been anointed by the New Zealand Rugby Union up from the NZ under-19s, All Black trial teams and the Hurricanes. His All Black reputation garnered respect, even fear in a few players, as he once confided.

From a media perspective we had a professional relationship.

He had a colourful rugby lingua which had to be translated into prose befitting a family newspaper.

One writer left the beeps in his copy for effect and let's just say Oliver wasn't amused.

At least twice Manawatu lost games through some piece of on-field daftness and Oliver couldn't bring himself to conduct a post mortem with us afterwards. But the next day he'd be on the blower getting it off his chest.

We can say it now, but back then the All Blacks had secret training sessions at Massey University, with the media barred. Twice an anonymous call to my phone suggested it might be worthwhile popping out under a hedge at the Rugby Institute at a certain time.

We did and the All Blacks came clean when we broached the subject of their clandestine activities.

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We gave the Central Vikings team a fair critique back in 1998-99, but we did write critical stuff about the Hawke's Bay-inspired politics of it all. I sensed Frank wasn't much pleased.

He and Graham Taylor press-ganged players from all over the shop, yes, even Manawatu men like No 8 Karl Williams. Oliver had the Hurricanes playing scintillating rugby, often packing out grand old Athletic Park in days which probably won't be repeated.

The spinoff for Manawatu was that Oliver had player pulling power and men like Dion Waller and Bull Allen came in and wore the Vikings orange.

As a player, by today's standards he would be a short lock. Everyone knew he packed a punch, not just with his dukes but with his motor and athleticism. You don't play 43 games for the All Blacks otherwise and his arrival in Manawatu for matrimonial reasons was manna for the union in 1980.

Last year we chatted about the how's your father in the game of yore, how it would be so visible to the all-seeing lens now and Oliver rolled his eyes in agreement. But back in the 1970s and 80s, it was either harness the intimidation factor or be bullied off the ball.

We chatted before most Turbos games at FMG, those in which son James was playing, because his seat was just below the press benches. Frank would arrive early, study the warm-ups through his binoculars and get a feel for the team attitude.

He would happily reminisce and ask about the goss, then for another week retire to his household eyrie on the hill. We also saw him a few times when he came in to the Standard to obtain an action photo of James in Turbo action, a proud, softish proud father underneath it all.

- Manawatu Standard

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